Thursday, May 28, 2015

INTERVIEW - Jeff Scott Soto Takes Us 'Inside The Vertigo'

Left to right: Jorge Salan, Edu Cominato, Jeff Scott Soto, David Z and BJ (Photo courtesy of Atom Splitter PR)

If you are a serious Hard Rock and Metal fan, you've definitely heard Jeff Scott Soto's voice.

First gaining international attention in the mid '80s as the singer for Yngwie Malmsteen's Rising Force, Soto has built a name for himself as the to-go guy for powerful lead vocals. In addition to an extensive solo career, Soto's virtually endless discography and performance history includes work with Talisman, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), Axel Rudi Pell and dozens more. He is perhaps best known to mainstream Rock audiences as the lead singer of Journey in 2006-2007.

Of course, one of Soto's most esoteric (and least discussed) endeavors was his stint as the singer for Kryst The Conqueror, the sword-wielding late '80s Christian-themed Metal band featuring former Misfits members Jerry Only (then calling himself “Mo The Great”) and Doyle. Soto's involvement in the short-lived group resulted in the 1990 EP Deliver Us From Evil and a still-unreleased full-length album. (The uninitiated can find plenty of Kryst The Conqueror music on YouTube.)

Naturally, Soto is doing quite a lot in the here and now. After spending decades as either a solo artist or a contributor to outside projects, Soto has decided to put his talents into fronting his own band, the appropriately named SOTO. One of the year's strongest releases, SOTO's Inside The Vertigo finds the journeyman taking charge of a band with inspired results. In addition to full-time SOTO members Jorge Salan (lead guitar), BJ (keys, guitars), David Z (bass) and Edu Cominato (drums) – all of whom have served time in Soto's solo band – the album boasts an impressive array of guest collaborators including Gus G (Firewind/ Ozzy Osbourne), former Talisman contributor Jason Bieler (Saigon Kick), Mike Orlando (Adrenaline Mob) and Joel Hoekstra (Night Ranger/TSO). The album was one of many topics Soto and I discussed when I recently phoned him in LA. 

You've done a lot of records in your career. What were your primary goals going into this particular project?

I kind of wanted to go back to form, so to speak. I haven't really done heavy music in a while. A lot of time, especially the past decade, has been concentrated on Melodic Rock or Melodic Hard Rock. I kind of missed the heavier end of things. Unfortunately, the label I was working with wasn't interested in me kind of going back to my roots; they wanted to keep me in this sort of Melodic Rock/AOR direction. It was just kind of getting stale for me. I don't mind this music; I love this music and was weaned on it. But for the most part, I thought I had pretty much said and done it all at this point. Even though I was doing some other projects on the side – a band called W.E.T. and some other things – it just sounded like I was competing with myself. For me to do another solo album in this format just wasn't interesting to me.

The Inside The Vertigo album actually started off as a solo album; midway, the manager I was working with just decided, 'I can't market and brand this as a solo album. It's sounds too much like a band album. I think it would be wise of we actually branded this as a band.' I really wasn't interested in throwing another new project name into the hat. He said, 'Well, if you just name it SOTO, it's still associated with you; people know it's you as the main figure behind it all, but we can brand it as a single name the way many before have done, from Dio to Van Halen to Daughtrey, Winger – the list goes on and on and on.' So many bands were named after one person, and this is the direction we took with that.

One of the real exciting things about the albums is the number of collaborators you have involved. That includes Mike Orlando and Gus G., who are certainly very key players on the scene right now. How did they impact the proceedings?

Not only have these guys become very dear friends of mine, I knew musically – and just what they do personally – they would be able to help me hone into the direction I was heading on this particular record. That being said, they were more than happy to create and be a part of this with me. On the other hand, once it became a band entity, I didn’t want to remove the work they did on it. As they're co-writers, I wanted to be able to keep their performances on the songs they co-wrote with me. Once we decided that it was going to be a band thing, it was kind of a mutual decision that there was no need to re-do their parts. Their parts actually work for a reason. They wrote the songs; it was good to actually be able to keep them on there.

Jason was involved as well, and you have a pretty long history with him. Describe the experience of having him work with you in the present tense.

I've known Jason since like 1989. Especially ever since the Saigon Kick days, we always talked about doing something together. We had kind of a false attempt in '94, I think. We got together and co-wrote something that didn’t really pan out; I don't think we ever used it for anything, but our friendship has lasted through all these years. I finally went back to him again, knowing where I wanted to go direction-wise with this album, and said, 'Give me your heaviest riffs. Just give me something that would sound like it's even way too heavy for Saigon Kick.' What he gave me was probably one of the heaviest riffs I've ever heard come out of him. From that, I knew I could make something really melodic out of it the way he used to be able to do with Saigon Kick. He always had the coolest riffs, and it was something blistering and heavy, but melodically it always sounded like something The Beatles would have written. I went into that same kind of mind frame when I was writing the melodies for 'Karma's Kiss.' I didn't know I wanted to make it sound like a Saigon Kick song, but I knew naturally because of the influence of the writing that it was going to kind of turn out that way.

Now that the album is here and you have the SOTO brand, what are your longterm plans moving forward? Do you anticipate doing this band direction in the foreseeable future, or will you continue doing more of a project-based approach?

Once we decided this was going to be a band, it was absolutely decided that, first of all, I was going to turn down all the other side things and offers and things I would say yes to, or squeeze them in or add them to the repertoire. This time around, I said, 'If I want people to take this seriously, they're going to have to know that I'm not just doing this to see if it sticks, [like] 'Well, if it does, it does; if it doesn't, I'll move on.' I have to finally commit to one thing for people to finally take seriously that I'm actually into it. There are so many projects and so many bands... If you look at my discography, it's actually funny at this point, with all the different bands and different things I have done. I wanted to actually see this one through. My artist shelf life is shortening; if I want to do something, I gotta make that big move now. That's what the SOTO band is.

What are your touring plans moving forward?

Touring is a difficult one, because the album has to be pseudo-successful for me to even contemplate a tour. In the past as 'Jeff Scott Soto' the solo artist, I could do a tour without even having an album out and just do it based on my past. For the SOTO band and for putting SOTO on the map, I don't want to take this on the road doing a kind of nostalgic trip; it's gotta be focused on the band and what we're doing on this album; it's got to be genre-driven. I can't go on stage doing a song like 'Wrath' and then sing the Talisman hit 'I'll Be Waiting' or something that just doesn't fit in the same musical category. It'll be kind of silly, and it won't make the right statement. Because SOTO is a heavier and harder entity, I've gotta make sure that when we go out, we only go out as that entity. I don't want to confuse the factors of my solo thing compared to this as a band. I kind of equate it the same way as when Dio did his first tour on Holy Diver. He didn't go out there doing covers from Rainbow and Black Sabbath albums. He maybe ended the set with 'Long Live Rock 'N' Roll,' but a good chunk of the set was from that first Dio album. That's the only way he was able to sell people on that as his new thing. He wasn't going out there as a solo artist; he was going out there as an entity.

Looking at the current band you have now, what makes this combination of musicians stand out and be the one to make you think, “I'm going to be taking the next step with these guys?”

First and foremost, the skills have to be there. Everyone in my band are lead singers in their own right. Anybody who's ever followed any of my albums or any of my shows or tours realizes how vocally-driven my material is, whether it be the solo stuff or the stuff I've done with Talisman. Overall, it's very vocal-driven, and not just on the lead vocal end. It's not something where like with Ozzy Osbourne, he can go up and nobody has to be able to sing background – he can pull off the whole show with him just in front of the microphone. My stuff has always been driven by the fact that I love harmonies and big backing styles like Queen and Journey and even Van Halen; it was always very strong in the vocal department. So I needed that reinforcement, knowing not only that these guys are ridiculous players, but they also have the vocal reinforcement that if we're doing something where the guitar parts are too difficult for those guys to sing with, I know I can turn to the drummer and he can pull it off. All around, I have that side taken care of, but just as important are the personalities. I've been in this business for over 30 years, and you have so many different personalities and characteristics and things that could ruin a band, either because they're headstrong or they just want things a certain way or they're not hungry. There are just so many different factors that can take away from the personality of making a band work. 

That's what I love about these guys; as my touring solo band, everything about their personalities – musically, personally – fit like a glove. Those were the first guys I went to knowing I was going to make this into a band. I wanted to invite them into the fold and turn this into something that we're going to share in now as opposed to them just backing me up.

When considering your past work, there's obviously a pretty long list to draw from and mention. There is one artist in particular that's always been of interest to me: You worked with Jerry and Doyle in Kryst the Conqueror. There hasn't been much said about that over the years, so I'm curious if you could shed a little bit of light on how you became involved in that project, that album and how that all came together.

When those guys parted ways with Glenn [Danzig], they wanted to do something a lot different. They wanted to draw from a different perspective from what people already knew them from. I think it was Mo who came up with the idea that they wanted Kryst the Conqueror to not only come out on a more positive level, but they wanted a kind of science fiction/comic book edge to it. So they wanted to turn that band basically into a comic book. They had the whole idea that it would be a comic book Heavy Metal band. Musically, I was never a big Misfits fan. I love the attitude, and I could watch and listen to the band, but they weren't on my playlist; I wasn't listening to them in my car. The same had to be said about Kryst the Conqueror. I wasn't really a big fan of what they were doing musically. I wasn't about to quit my day job, so to speak. I wasn't about to walk away from what I was actually chasing to do something like this, but they were very coercive to the point where they were giving me a good chunk of money to come down and do the studio stuff with them and hang out with them. I had a really good time with those guys; I love them to death. They're the nicest guys; to this day, we still have a very strong friendship. But musically, it just wasn't for me. We did our thing, and that was pretty much it. They did everything they could to coerce me to stay or to move on with them, but it just wasn't for me.

How long did you work with them in the studio?

I was out there for maybe two weeks, maximum.

Were the lyrics already written?

Everything was written; even most of it was demoed. I think it was Mo who did most of scratch vocals, just to give me an idea melodically of how the lyrics fit into the music. I just had to make it my own and put my own stamp on it. But I just wasn't ready to put on an armored suit and a codpiece as the future of my frontman career.

The legend goes that the vocals were credited to 'Kryst the Conqueror' because you were under contract with Yngwie at the time.

No, that's absolutely false. It was credited to 'Kryst the Conqueror' because that's how the character was supposed to be written. Everybody was supposed to have comic book names, so they gave the lead vocalist that character name. It had nothing to do with contracts; I was under no contracts or binds with anybody at that time. This is back in 1988; I was long gone from Yngwie's fold by then.

Do you still listen to the Kryst the Conqueror recording?

I haven't heard it in decades. If I listened back to it, it'll probably all come back to me, but I couldn't even sing you a melody from it because it's been so long.

Ad for Kryst the Conqueror's Deliver Us From Evil, 1990

Another experience from your past I thought to ask you about – since it's actually the first band that you were involved in that I ever heard – is Eyes. I always really dug the song “Calling All Girls,” which I heard a lot on the radio back then. Eyes was kind of a short-lived thing. Was that intended to be a band project that was going to last longer than it did?

It's tough to give the truth without selling it too short. I love the guys in the band; they became and remain really good friend. But it was yet another situation where I was hesitant to quit my day job and give my full commitment... They basically paid me to be in the band. They paid me to be a part of the fold, and it was only for a certain amount of time they were going to have my likeness, so to speak. During that time, I think it was literally on the 11th hour that they finally got the deal for it. It wasn't the perfect deal, but it was nonetheless a deal and was binding to the agreement I signed. They were just paying me basically to be their singer; by the end of the term, if they didn’t have a deal, I would be free to move forward. I was thinking, 'It's taken this long, so I'm going to be moving forward soon.' But when they got the deal, I was kind of stuck. I don't want to discredit them by saying I was stuck in the band, but I basically was. I had to see it through, and that's when we did the debut album with 'Calling All Girls,' and I tried to make it the best I could for the situation at hand, but the whole time I was thinking I'd really like to have a band with the level and the skills of, say, Talisman, which eventually came. That came during the time I was doing Eyes, but I couldn't do Talisman full on because I was contracted with Eyes. It wasn't until we finally got dropped and we were basically starting over that I said, 'I'm out. I'm going to take this time to actually join a band that I know I'm going to be able to keep up with musically, and they're going to keep up with me.' Again, without discrediting the guys, the skills just weren't there musically. I would look at what they were doing, and I kind of felt like I was in college and hanging out with some elementary school guys – that's only when it comes to actual musical skills. When you're 18 years old and you play with Yngwie Malmsteen and Jens and Anders Johansson, the bar is so raised. It's almost like – and I mean no disrespect – but it's like everyone's more like Poison, where everything is just more basic chords/basic structure. You go from this ridiculously Classically-oriented band... Musically, it's just another level. That's kind of where I was at mentally. I wanted to be in the room with people at that level.

Wasn’t there a second Eyes album?

It's completely confusing because of the way it was marketed and promoted. The second Eyes album was actually originally the first Eyes album. When I was under contract, we made a full album that was financed by the band themselves. Once they got the deal, they wanted the album to be done. They said, 'Okay, we've got the deal. The album's already done; we'll just put it out.' The label we signed with didn't like 75 percent of the album. They signed us based on two or three songs on that particular recording. They said, 'Guys, we want the band, but you've gotta go back in. We want more Hard Rock songs.' Based on the times, they wanted more of a Def Leppard vibe or whatever we went for with the debut album. So the other one was kind of scrapped and kind of sat there. When I was out of the band, they decided, 'Well, this thing is just sitting here. It's got two songs from the debut album, but the rest of the album is songs nobody's ever heard. Let's release that as the second album.' But that was originally the first album that got scrapped.

Obviously, this is not the easiest line of work. Every year, it gets harder for people to last, let alone have decades of experience. Having done this for as long as you have, what do you consider to be the keys to longevity in this business?

You have to want it so badly that you know nothing else. That, to me, is the key to me even being here now and even talking to you. It's a very fickle industry. As most know, it's not going to work for everybody, especially today. One out of every 5,000 to 10,000 is going to get a chance to do anything in a real way. Those odds are not very good. You have to really want it; you have to really be hungry for it and you have to stick it through. My persistence is one of the things that got me most of the gigs, whether it be singing for Journey or singing for Trans-Siberian Orchestra currently or any of the other things I have under my belt. My persistence has been above and beyond most people that I know in this industry, and that's the only thing that got me here. I'm still eons away from where I aim to be and where I ever wanted to be. I'm still hungry for it as if I am starting today, like it was 1985 all over again. That's another thing that keeps me here. So if you really want it, it will happen. That's the only advice I could ever give to a new musician; you've gotta stick with it. If you don't stick with it, then that means you never really wanted it.

*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity.


Monday, May 25, 2015

INTERVIEW - Still Hard: Raven's John Gallagher on Living the Metal Life

Left to right: Mark Gallagher, Joe Hasselvader and John Gallagher of Raven. (Courtesy of Freeman Promotions)

Never judge a book by its cover.

I see John Gallagher's name come up on my phone, and I pick up the line fully expecting a chat with the crazed Metal Maniac of Raven. (Cue devil horns and a blazing guitar riff!) What I got instead was a humble, soft-spoken and incredibly friendly man who was more like the kind of person you'd have coffee with at a quiet cafe than a guy you'd hit up to trash a hotel. It was definitely a surprise considering that John's musical career has been and continues to be the embodiment of Heavy Metal.

For more than four decades, John and his brother Mark have stayed true to their over-the-top brand of “Athletic Rock” through incredible highs (including 1983's classic All For One and 1984's Live At The Inferno) and near career-ending lows (including an ill-fated mid-'80s run on Atlantic Records and a freak 2001 accident that saw Mark's legs crushed when a wall collapsed on him). Along with long-serving drummer Joe Hasselvander (Pentagram/Blue Cheer), the brothers continue to deliver true Heavy Metal that is immune to trends or popular opinion. Love 'em or 'em, Raven do what they do without apology.

The band's bulletproof new album, ExtermiNation (Steamhammer/SPV), is the latest in a series of high-profile events to impact the band in recent times. In addition to the release of the career-spanning Rock Until You Drop DVD in 2013, the band joined Metallica – who toured with them way back in 1983 – last year for a show in front of a crowd of 70,000 in São Paulo. 

Currently living in Virginia, John was very happy to discuss Raven's current place in the world of Metal, his thoughts on some of his peers in the scene and what it was like to cut his teeth in the British club scene of the mid-to-late '70s.

You're 41 years into this. How does it feel to be spending your day doing interviews about an album in 2015 with Raven four decades after you started?

It's pretty amazing. These are the things you can't even dream of when you're trying to project into the future what could be going on. The fact that we're still around and doing it is pretty amazing as it is, and everything else is gravy - the fact that we're still pushing the envelope, still raising the bar and still kicking ass live and making it happen.

It's been five or six years since you've done an album, right?

Right. We technically released Walk Through Fire in Japan in 2009, and then it came out in the States and in Europe in 2010.

What accounted for that kind of timespan between releases?

Obviously, it took a lot longer due to Mark's accident in 2001. It took something like nine years to put Walk Through Fire out. We had a lot of catch-up to do out there...The album had a great reception and did very well for us, and we wanted to get out there and basically milk it. We had the ability and the offers coming in, so we went out and toured with it. When that was winding down, then we did the DVD, Rock Until You Drop, which is the retrospective on the band. That came out in 2013, and we ended up touring on that. Then, we figured it's about time to get our asses in gear here and work on a new album.

In this day and age, you're not putting an album out every year. You want to try to make it an event; you want to try and it make special. It takes a little longer. The actual recording process for us is always very short, but the work before that – the pre-production, the writing, the re-arranging, picking the right songs, all that kind of stuff – is time-consuming and basically takes as long as it takes until you're happy with what you've got. You finalize the arrangements and try to make it powerful. No extraneous parts and notes; you just want to boil it down to the essence of what you want to do, then get in the studio and do it live. We go in, we play it as a band - no click tracks, no tricks, no nonsense – and capture that raw energy.

You can definitely feel that on this album.

Yeah. It's sad; the more I talk to people, the more I learn that nobody records this way. Everyone is just file-sharing, or you see videos of these bands recording their albums on YouTube, and you're hearing [makes sound of a click track] and the guitar player's playing away to it. No! We don't need a click track – we've got a drummer! We have a Joe Hasselvander! He provides the beats. He's the percussionist. We don't have a click track, because that's how you get a real feel; that's how you get that edge...that little bit of danger in there. Tempos push and pull, and it's organic. There isn't a button for that in ProTools, you know? (laughs)

Speaking of the drums, the “new guy” in Raven has been with you –

28 years!

Exactly. And that's a rarity in this business. With a lot of Metal acts I see, especially those playing festivals in Europe, it's the bass player and the triangle player from the original band, and everybody else is new. What is it about Raven in particular that has enabled the three of you to stay together and work together as well as you have for so long?

It's chemistry. It's like a marriage; it's mostly about personality and being friends and going through thick and thin. That translates into the music. We're not a corporation; we're not a football team. So many of these bands are like franchises; they're almost completely faceless. It's like, 'Okay, who's playing lead guitar this week? Who's the drummer next week? Who's the bass player the week after that?' The team will change, but the name on the fascia will remain the same. Well, we're not like that; we're old school friends, and we stick to it.

I know you're based in the States and have been here for a long time. The US market for Metal has had its ups and downs over the years. What are your goals in terms of America?

I think we fill a niche there that's not being catered to. There's Death Metal and the Hard Thrash and all this symphonic European nonsense. Where's the heavy Rock? That's where we are. Obviously, we got our roots firmly from where we started, back in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, but we're not stuck there. We've got one foot in our roots and one foot moving forward. We continually push the envelope and bring out new ideas, as we have on this record. There aren't many of our contemporaries who are doing that, if indeed they're still around.

The more I hear Thrash albums, and the more I hear the Death Metal albums, they all sound the same. They're all using the same producer. It all starts getting very samey...You form the bands to play the same kind of music, and they're all playing with the same gear, so it's all going to sound the same. God bless 'em; let them get on with it, and we'll continue to try to be as original as possible.

This year is kind of an anniversary for Raven. Exactly 30 years ago was the first time a lot of Americans got to hear the band to begin with through the single “On And On” and the first Atlantic record, Stay Hard. When you look back now, what are your thoughts on that era's place in the history of the band and the effect it's had on you even today?

It didn't do us any favors. Stay Hard was a great album for us; it was the logical next step after All For One. We had no problem; the album was done before we finalized the deal with Atlantic. They had input on the next one [1986's The Pack Is Back], and obviously made our lives miserable one way or another. We had to climb back from that, and we got a lot of flack for that [period], but a lot of other bands made much more grievous errors. Judas Priest did at least two horrible albums, and Saxon probably did two or three. It happened to a lot of bands where the record companies were meddling and pushing...They wanted KISS meets Bon Jovi or something, you know? You're young, impressionable and naive, and it takes you a while to wake up sometimes. And we did, and we moved on from that. It's water under the bridge. You live and learn. We learned that when we did The Pack Is Back, it's not the best way to do a record – using click tracks and going in and doing it one [track] at a time and spending eight to 10 weeks doing a record. It drove us crazy.

When we record, we spend all the time with pre-production and writing and getting it the way we want it, and then we bang it all out in like five or six days live in the studio. No click track, no nothing – just boom. You fix whatever you need to fix, but you've got to capture that energy. That's what it's all about – capturing the feel.

How would you define the relationship you have with labels today? SPV put out this new album.

SPV are savvy; they know what's going on and are in touch with the scene, as it were. They've been partners with us off and on for many years, basically for 15 years straight or something like that. They're great guys; we're in contact with them constantly. They're really happy with this one because they kind of got the last album secondhand because it had been out for about six months in Japan. They really wanted to build a concerted effort around the release on this, where it's a worldwide release. They're doing a bang-up job; they got me working my ass off for the last few days here! (laughs) So that's a good thing.

Going back to the start of the band for a moment, you did some shows in the early days with a band I’ve done some writing about, The Stranglers -

Yeah! We opened for a couple of Punk bands. We opened for The Stranglers in '76 or '77, and we also opened for more of a New Wave band called The Motors. Both of those shows were notable in that the main bands would not let us use the PA system, which is like so weird. It would be ballsy to say, 'Hey, can I use your backline?' But to say, 'No, you can't use the PA...You have to bring your own PA in'? We did on both occasions, and did really well. The great thing about the Stranglers show is the original guitar player, Hugh Cornwell, came up to a bunch of us before they were going to play and said, 'Does anyone got perfect pitch?' I said, 'Yeah!' He said, 'Give me an E,' so I went [does the sound of an E]. He tuned his guitar and walked on stage and started to play! (laughs) And if that's not Punk Rock, I don't know what is.

You were playing at a time before the New Wave of British Heavy Metal really took hold in England. What was it like being a band at that time playing music that really, to a lot of ears, was a new thing that was not widely known or accepted at that point in time?

The people that we were playing to got it, because we were taking the Rock of the day – the Deep Purple, the Sabbath, the Zeppelin, the Montrose, the Budgie – and taking the more hyper aspects of that. Back in those days, it was half originals and half covers...We had been playing 'Breaking All The House Rules' by Budgie or 'Highway Star' by Deep Purple, and we did a couple of Judas Priest ones – 'Hell Bent For Leather' or 'Victim of Changes'  – and a couple of AC/DC songs. They were all the uptempo stuff; as we started feeding more and more of our own songs [into the set], the audience went along with it to the point where we were playing some of clubs in 1980 and it was totally original [material]. I think the last one we played, we had the honor of being paid off...You used to do two sets, and if the committee of the club hated you, they would give you half the money and say, 'Go home!' That was the ultimate badge of honor, because we had started a riot at the [club] when we didn't get to play the second set! (laughs) You heard people screaming for their money back and threatening to kill the committee. It was great.

It was strange; back in those days, you really did your apprenticeship and learned how to engage an audience, how to play to them, how to entertain them or how to antagonize them. There was a lot of rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland, which is only 10 miles away. So if you were playing south of Newcastle, inevitably [the emcee] would be saying [in a deep DJ voice], 'And next up, it's the boys from...Newcastle!' and the crowd would go, 'Boooo!' They used to bring the beer mats – the coasters – and have their song requests on them and they'd put them on the stage. Inevitably, down there they would have 'fuck off!' written on them! (laughs) So it was tough; you played to punks and skinheads and learned to fight you way through it. If they weren't with you, you'd make sure they were damn well against you and just antagonize the Hell out of them. That's served us in good stead over all these years.

Obviously, Heavy Metal as a genre has taken a few hits over the years in terms of public opinion, but it always seems to come back. It's a style of music that has always proven to be incredibly resilient. The press doesn't get it and record companies don't always get it, but the fans always seem to understand. What do you think it is about Heavy Metal that has allowed it continue to grow to the point where it's still very much a worldwide phenomenon in 2015?

It's part of the spectrum of music; it really is. It's bright red; it's right there. Your laid-back Jazz is a kind of purple, and the Blues is the blue, but Heavy Metal is full-out red. Because of that, it will never go away. It's like a beacon for people who have been through some hard times or whatever. It's a release – the glorious power of just hitting a big power chord. That's what it's all about – the energy that's in that. To my mind, it's obviously more than that. There's melody, there's songs. It's energy viewed through that prism as opposed to the nonsense which a lot of bands call Heavy Metal these days. I've seen that so many times when we were on tour in the states last year: [Mimicking redneck voice], 'Oh, you guys are in a band? What kind of music you play?' We go, 'Heavy Metal,' and we see the face go urrrr...We say, 'Our roots are in Deep Purple and..' They go, 'Oh! That's great! I love that!' You know what I mean? They think they're talking to some guy with a white face playing a chainsaw guitar and making a complete racket. I think the term's been corrupted by all that down-tuned, Cookie Monster stuff that's not Heavy Metal. It really isn't, so we need to claim the term back. (laugh)

Who are some bands you're seeing today that really do earn the name 'Heavy Metal' and are doing things the right way or maybe even pushing it forward as a genre?

There are obviously still the bigger bands like Metallica and Megadeth...As far as the younger bands, we had a band out with us called Night Demon. They're great and have a lot of roots in the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. There's a Canadian band called Cauldron, and my friend Ryan from Municipal Waste has a couple of projects – Volture and BAT – which are both heavily influenced by the New Wave of British Of Heavy Metal. Bands over in Europe...we have Air Raid, a Swedish band. There are also Rock bands which merge into the heavy territory, like the Winery Dogs...It's real guys playing real music. The California Breed thing that Glenn Hughes did was awesome, and there's a band we love from California called Rival Sons that are really cool. There's good stuff out there.

You mentioned Metallica. I know you guys kind of had a full-circle moment with them last year when you played with them in front of a pretty big audience – I think about 70,000 people in São Paulo.

Yeah, it was insane. We did the DVD, and a friend of a friend asked Lars if he wanted to contribute. He very nicely did like an hour's worth of interview, which we used quite a lot of. When we played California in 2013, he came down to the show and we saw him for like five, 10 minutes...In 2014, we were setting up some dates in Brazil, and my guy down there said, 'Hey, Metallica's playing a soccer stadium down here. Are you guys still in touch with them?' I said, 'Well, I can get a message to them.' He said, 'Well, why don't we ask if we can open up?' (laughs) Hey, if you don't ask, you don't get. I put the message through, and it came back, 'Yeah, let's do it.' So we went, and it was mind-blowing the amount of people and the size of the hall. It was crazy.

Metallica were delayed...What happened was, we were able to play an extra song, which turned out to be 'Break The Chain' for about 12 minutes! (laughs). It was funny as hell, as James [Hetfield]  was on stage videoing us, headbanging and giving us the high five. It was really cool. We hung out with them for about 10, 15 minutes before they went on stage. We had a bit of a reconnect there, which was awesome.

Tour rider for the Raven/Metallica "Kill 'Em All For One" Tour, 1983 (Source:

What are your plans as far as touring in support of this record, especially stateside?

We're starting to get that together. We're going to Japan in early July. When we come back from that, we're doing a couple of weeks of dates in the States at the tail end of July. We have a full European tour we're building for September through October, then we'll be looking to do more US dates after that.

As we mentioned at the start of this conversation, it's 41 years into your career. You have this great new album in your hands. What are your ultimate hopes moving forward for this band?

Basically just to continue pushing the envelope. We’ve still got a lot of great music in our heads. We're playing live better and crazier than ever, and there are still lots of places to play. I did interviews with guys from India today. There's a whole untapped market for us in places like that. We've never been to Australia, and we've never been to New Zealand, Malaysia or Indonesia, and there are a lot of countries in Europe we haven't hit, even after all these years. We'll be hitting a bunch of them later this year. Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, stuff like that. It's definitely all good.

*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Raven's Official Website


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

INTERVIEW - Dark Days Gone: The Unexpectedly Bright Future of Coal Chamber

Photo by Dan Santoni

Imagine crossing paths with a former lover from your distant past. Would the meeting go well, or would it be an emotional train wreck? Would it be possible to rekindle the magic, or would the mere thought of being friends again be enough to turn you off? Reconnecting with someone who represents so much history and baggage is always a tricky thing, which makes the unexpected (and so far incredibly fruitful) reunion of Nu Metal veterans Coal Chamber so intriguing.

Today marks the release of Rivals, Coal Chamber's first album in 13 years. Easily one of the year's most vicious Metal releases, Rivals finds the band (now comprised of original singer/current DevilDriver frontman Dez Fafara, original guitarist Miguel "Meegs" Rascón, longtime drummer Mikey “Bug” Cox and later-period bassist Nadja Peulen) pummeling through perhaps their strongest effort to date. The album's many highlights include the menacing "I.O.U. Nothing" and "Suffer In Silence" (the latter featuring a guest vocal appearance by Al Jourgensen of Ministry).

Considering Dez Fafara's heavily-tattooed image and imposing stage presence, it might come as a surprise to many that he is one of the most unassuming, well-spoken and insightful people in the business - a fact made crystal clear in the following interview. 

The obvious first question is, why now with Coal Chamber? Obviously, you've been very successful doing DevilDriver all these years. Why was it time to bring Coal Chamber back and do this new album?

We started talking in 2006, when Meegs came up and did “Loco” with DevilDriver in California. Then in 2009, he gave me a couple of songs that I demoed on. We listened to them, and they definitely sounded like old Coal Chamber. At that point, I don't think any one of us were at the point where we wanted to do that throwback music. Plus I [thought] the conversations and dialogue needed to be opened more. At that point, the mending started to heal in order for us to get together and go do a tour.

We started to tour in late 2011 into 2012. We went over to the Soundwave Festival in Australia. When you step out in front of 50,000-60,000 people and they're singing all the words in a place you haven't even been... it was magnificent. It was like saying, 'Okay, we either struck a nerve back in the day or people have long memories.' I think it's a bit of both. As far as why now? I don't know; it could have happened in 2009. But in 2012 when we were at Soundwave, we were on these buses that bring all the bands back to the hotels from the Festival. Meegs was listening to some music in some headphones; I grabbed the headphones and said, 'What is this?' He said, 'It's just some music I'm writing.” I said, 'For who? For what?' He said, 'Just some stuff I'm writing, Dez.' I was like, 'Let me tell you, if your writing, the arrangement and the sound is this mature, this is probably the time for us to get together and see if we can do a new record.'

That being said, too, I would be remiss to not bring up the fact – and it should be resounding clear to everyone reading this – that if you ever have a chance to make up with an ex love or ex best friend who you had forever but had a falling out with over something stupid or a job that rightfully fired you and you want to go back to that guy and say, 'Thanks for firing me. I finally got my shit together because of it,' then you should do that in life. I don't want to live with regrets.

I think the timing was perfect as well. In 20 years of doing both Coal Chamber and DevilDriver, I had never taken time off. With DevilDriver, we did six records in 12 years. Most bands take a year off between cycles, but we never did that. We keep spitting out good music and just toured, clocking more road miles than literally any band on the planet. Finally, after Winter Kills came out – it debuted higher than any of the others and was extremely praised by critics and fans alike – [I thought], 'Okay, this is the time when we take off and regroup.' Mike Spreitzer, my guitar player, said, 'Yeah, I'm going to build my home studio and surf.' I said, 'I'm going to finish my studio here.' During that time, knowing that I had time off, Coal Chamber approached me and said, 'Do you want to do a record?' I said, 'I don't want to go anywhere to do a record.' They go, 'You have a home studio. You can sing during the day.' My main goal was to have dinner with my family every night... In over 20 years, I can't tell you how many times I actually have done that. I said, 'I can definitely record during the day and hang out with my family at night.' Then they came to me when the record was done [and said], 'You've still got a year and a half off. How would you like to do five or six weeks in the states with us?' I said, 'No problem; let's go do that.' Then after that, it was, 'Hey, do you want to take eight days and go do Monsters of Rock in Brazil with Ozzy, Judas Priest and Motorhead, and do Chile and Mexico City?' I asked my wife, 'How do you feel about me splitting just for like a week?' She said, 'No problem, honey. Go ahead,' because I had been home, you know what I mean? It all worked out very coincidentally, and give Coal Chamber adequate time touring for the new record and adequate time to make the record.

Now that you have this rare benefit of being back in the band roughly 20 years after the first album and 13 years since the split, and you're working together in the present tense, how would you say the band has evolved in that time – not only in terms of your personal relationships, but how you guys communicate and work together in writing songs?

Personally, it's just on a totally different level. Meegs is married, very mature and has his shit together. Mike's got a baby boy who is a year old and is the light of his life, and Mike is sober. This band would definitely not be together if he was not sober, so we all get behind him on that. The relationships have gotten to the point where communication is the top priority. The first night we were together in the rehearsal room jamming, my wife asked, 'What did you guys get done?' I said, 'Nothing but laugh.' Literally laugh at all the bullshit and everything from the past. We'd make little comments to each other – the kind of stuff we used to say to each other – and just start laughing. That kind of a thing made me really feel like there was something special going on, like, 'It's okay, man. I definitely want to do music with these cats.' So everything has changed. Musically, it is completely different. It's on a much more mature scale, both in writing and arrangement. I think the way we go about writing has always been the same – very old school, lock ourselves away in a room, write, share back and forth until we get it right, get a producer, make sure our arrangements sound correct and have him go through it with a fine-toothed comb – which we did with this record.

[The response] has been overwhelmingly positive. One thing that is apparent is that we didn't want to be part of some nostalgia trip and some '90s throwback sound. We definitely wanted to do something different and new, and I think we have.

Looking back at the band's history, you have had some changes in the past when it comes to the bass player slot. How do you think having Nadja back at this point in time most benefits what you're hoping to do moving forward?

When we first started touring [again], she wasn't ready; she had some other stuff going on. Everybody had to be totally together in their minds and ready to do it. She wasn't at that point. [When we] got back together for another round and talked about making a record, it was very much on the top of our heads: 'Hey, let's talk to Nadja and see where she's at now.' She was just in a really great place personally and with us. She's a monster on stage, and she’s an absolute monster in the studio. She came in and in four days just killed her parts. I don't know a lot of bass players on a record that's going to be of this caliber who can just go in and wail on it like that. She brings her own style to things, and she's a bit of a mediator between is as well. That has always been a fantastic part of her place in the band. And not so much now because there's never any conflict because the communicate is open, but now more so that when she hears us say something to each other that makes us laugh, she starts laughing and brings another perspective, like, 'Oh God, I remember' this or that and then we all start fucking laughing at her view of what she was seeing before the split. So it's critical.

How did Uncle Al get involved in the proceedings?

Great friend, longtime friend and a progenitor of a scene. The guy started Industrial music; you wouldn't have all those bands out there now without him. He's somebody I've always looked up to. Over the years, I've been very fortunate to work with a lot of great artists, and he was one of those dudes on my list. I was like, 'I really want to work with Al.' I think he understood the lyrics to 'Suffer In Silence.' Are you keeping something in for so long that you'll explode? Eventually, you have to let it out; otherwise, you end up suffering in silence. He was like, 'Okay, I'm into this.' He understands heavy music, but he also understands the Goth aspect of what we are. We could just as easily listen to The Damned and Bauhaus as we can Black Flag or Black Sabbath – or Soul music or anything with any kind of groove. There are so many diverse things within this band, but I think putting all those things together led me to the conclusion of, 'Lets work with Al, man.' I called him, he wanted to do it and he came down here. We had a big Italian dinner, and we drank a bunch of wine. He went inside my studio, and I think one of the key things is you've got to imagine listening to Al getting his vocal sound. All of a sudden, there's that Al Jourgensen/Ministry sound coming out of my sound booth at my house. It's pretty spectacular – a moment that was engraved in me. When he came over, he brought me this leather bracelet; he had engraved the date that we worked together, and it had my name on it. It was just a real cool night, man. Rarely do you get a different caliber of musician to do stuff like that, so any time you can have that happen is automatically a magical moment.

Interestingly enough, the band's been away for over a decade – a millennium in the music industry. Now that you're back doing it with Coal Chamber, how would you say the gap in time has affected audiences? Do you see a lot of guys in their 30s who were from the original era, or it mostly younger fans?

You know, it's really crazy. We do a Meet and Greet every night [for] 50 or 60 people before the doors open, then there's anywhere from 1,000 to whatever in the room. It's been very apparent to us that it's probably about 75 percent kids who were not even born when we released this stuff. Although we do have the 35-year-old cat bringing his nine or 10-year-old kid out to the gig to meet us, the whole front row is young kids. I don't know how that happens; it's a blessing for sure. But the diversity amongst the fans is really cool, man. And this is [on] the heels of a band that graced the cover of Kerrang! a million times, and Kerrang! will talk to us now and be like, 'Yeah, we'll come do an album review, but you guys are not really our demographic.' It's like 16 to 20-year old kids who read the mag, but Kerrang! hasn't been to a show and seen what's really going down. The United States was a real eye opener, and then we took it overseas. That was crazy. All of Chile and Mexico and Brazil... it was like young, young kids. I don't know how that happens, but you gotta feel like we struck a nerve somewhere down the line.

I had one kid who was like 17 say to me at a Meet & Greet, 'Dude, you started all this, man! You started all this scene!” I was like, “Started this scene? What scene? What bands do you think Coal Chamber started the scene of?' When he went through the list, I was Iike, “Huh. Okay.” I was actually taken aback; I was like, 'You know what? I see what he's talking about.' Anytime you can have influence on bands coming up, it's a good thing. When you get a diverse culture of people coming out to see you after being gone 13 years, you just kind of look up at the sky and say, 'Hail the Stars,' you know what I mean?

Who are some bands you're sharing stages with now who you watch and obviously feel that connection, that they got something from what you were doing back in the day?

It would be tremendously egotistical of me to point out bands, like, 'Oh, yeah. They directly took that from Coal Chamber.' I'm not even going to begin. But we did help a lot of bands come up. When we had Gold records, we took them out on tour and they are on the top pinnacle of their career now. It's good to see.

You're probably the only [interviewer] who hasn't asked me this, but everyone else asks me, 'So what do you think about this Nu Metal revolution coming back out?' It makes me laugh, because I'm thinking to myself, 'Dude, what are you talking about?” Slipknot are arguably one of the biggest bands on the planet next to Metallica and about as Nu Metal as it gets. System Of A Down, Korn, Deftones...I can just go on forever and ever. If you listen to and look at Five Finger Death Punch – Zoltan and those guys are good guys – they remind me of a Nu Metal band, in both their sound and their look. Obviously, that style of music has crossed through to different bands, and different bands have taken either the look or the sound or the arrangements that we all did and are putting it into current styles. Not only that, most of the large touring bands are from that era, so I don't think Nu Metal went away at all. It only became a dirty word when there was like a second wave of bands coming in that just did not fit what we were all doing and what we were all part of.

I talk to a lot of bands from the '90s who are now getting back into the groove and trying to see how things go in today's industry, which has obviously changed tenfold since Coal Chamber was active the first time around. But despite that, you had DevilDriver through all these major changes that have hit the industry – from social media to downloading. What have been some of the biggest lessons or experiences you've encountered in the last decade or so in this industry with DevilDriver that you hope to apply to Coal Chamber to maybe protect them from the issues that some of these bands are having coming back now because they don’t have that insight?

I think the main thing is communication. Then, in both bands, we make sure we do our own thing. In DevilDriver, we've done our own thing for 12 years. Only now in the last few years have people started calling us 'Groove Metal' or 'the California Groove Machine.' I take to social media and I'm like, 'Well, who else is in the 'Groove Metal' category, guys?' People come by and say, 'Nobody, just you guys.' That's a real killer thing. It's the same thing with Coal Chamber; it's like, 'Lets do our own thing,' It's why we didn't want to be part of some throwback '90s record; that's why we didn't want to do the nostalgic thing. We wanted to do what was coming out of us naturally now. So that will protect you - having your communication level open to the way it should be so you can talk anything out – both musically and personally. And then make sure that you're doing your own thing. If you're into a scene, by the time you're doing it and getting signed, it's going to be done and over with, so you might as well do something unique anyway and just throw it against the wall and hope it sticks. As an artist, that's what it's all about.

Don't skew your music toward any media outlet. That's another thing I would tell artists. I hear it all the time: 'Well, we've got to have our next radio track or we're done as a band. We've got to write a certain song that's got to be 2:58 or radio's not going to pick it up. In order to make this one TV show, we've got to cut a bunch of these lyrics and a bunch of this midsection, but we need the media outfit to help us to be the progenitor of what we're doing.' It's like, 'Wrong!' Maybe it's because I was born in '66 or raised by hippies or the rebellion within me, but art doesn't work that way. It's the same way a painter doesn't say, 'If I paint in these certain colors, I know I'm going to sell all my artwork at that show on Friday night.' That's the guy I don't want to buy and hang up in my house at all.

Be brave in what you do. Keep your communication open. Do something different and try to stand alone on your own merits. A perfect example would be 'I.O.U. Nothing,' the new song off of Rivals. I could have easily backed down the vocals a bit. It's hitting Active Rock Radio now, but is it going to go full bore Active Rock? Doubtfully, because I didn't compromise. I was like, 'No, I'm not taking that midsection down a bit. It needs to be heavy like that; that's where the art stands.' Just by the grace of the Gods, I don't have a label or anybody I employ around me who says, 'You need to change that for commerce.' We never skew our art for commerce or for the media. Those are the things that I would impart on new musicians.

What are Coal Chamber's longterm plans, and what are your plans in terms of DevilDriver? Are you looking to do both bands on a fairly regular basis moving ahead?

The thing is, me doing Coal Chamber really did happen coincidentally. I was taking two years off. I could easily record a Coal Chamber album and be home with my family; that's why I did it. I could easily jump out for a few tours with these guys and be home, but my main thing is making sure I finish off a nice, long break from DevilDriver and do some of these shows on the Coal Chamber record. But that being said, I'm going in to record a new DevilDriver record October/November of this year. There have been member changes, after we did Knotfest. Austin D'Amond is on drums and Neal Tiemann is on guitar. Neil and Mike Spreitzer working together is a whole other level of things going on...I'll probably start some shows in early 2016 with Devildriver, but right now, Rivals would be relatively new, so I definitely want to give it its time and due.

When people say, 'What is the longterm future of Coal Chamber?' that's what we don't get caught up in doing anymore. That's what we did when we were young; that's why we did so many tours with Pantera and Black Sabbath and Ozzfest and never came off the road. It ground the hell out of us and was one of the parts that separated the relationships, so we don't go there. We don't talk about the long term; what we do is say, 'Hey, was the last tour fun? Yes. Was it a success? Yes. Would you like to tour again? Sure, book it.' After the next one, we do the same thing. After this record, no doubt we'll be, 'How was the record received? Well. Did you have fun making it? Hell yeah! I had one of the best times of my life. I had laugh lines I'll never get rid of from having a good time. Would you like to make another one? You know what? Yes!' But that's how we're taking Coal Chamber. 

DevilDriver's a different mentality. You get a DevilDriver record out, and you light a flame through a rocket and you go. You burn down every city you possible can. You go city to city as long as you can possibly take it. After this long, I don't think Coal Chamber's going to work like that. We're going to take our time with it and go tour to tour and make sure we're having a fun time doing it. That's the key word here, man – fun.

This is not the easiest business in the world to survive in, let alone have the career you've had. Because you've got some traction now and some things in the rearview mirror, what do you see as the greatest key to longevity in this game?

My family and not thinking about this game. That's it. People say, 'How do you juggle two bands?' I say, 'I don't.' I put my family first, then I give the bands the time that they need. I believe the reason I've had the career I've have is because I have the strong support of a wife I've been with for a long time, and good kids that I've raised right, and I'm a very private and reclusive person with a handful of good friends. I can count my close, close friends on one hand. I'm not a 'backstage' kind of guy; I'm not a strip club kind of guy. I don't get caught up in any of the stuff that comes along with being in a band. I really don't enjoy the, I guess, fame that comes from it; what I enjoy is touring and being in different places. I enjoy being on the stage and doing music, and I enjoy being in the studio. But a lot of the extracurricular stuff can really get to me. 

To give you an example, it took the band a while to convince me to do the Meet and Greets, just because when you put me in a room with more than 10 people, I split. I've been that way since I was kid. I'm socially awkward to the point of, 'I'm outta here.' And I'm still working on that, even later on in life. I hand it to Coal Chamber, because when we did those Meet and Greets, I'd come out after each one and go, 'Hey, that was a good time.' It's a good time talking to that one person and hearing that one story or hearing that kid say how he found out about Coal Chamber, so I'm learning to work through that. Those things are what's helped me in a business that just absolutely eats its own. If you want to go ahead and get into the music industry, I'm not going to tell you not to, but I'm going to tell you to have a very thick skin. You'll learn a few things about yourself and other people in the first year. Trust me.  

*Some portions of the above interview were edited for clarity. 

Photo by Dan Santoni


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

LIVE REVIEW - Faith No More, The Orpheum Theatre (Boston, MA) 5/11/15

Photo by Joel Gausten

First of all, how mind-blowing is it that Faith No More's history dates back nearly 35 years at this point? Almost decade-old veterans by the time they finally broke into the mainstream with 1989's The Real Thing, Faith No More offered a wild ride of unbridled ideas that helped usher in the Alternative explosion of the '90s. The massive success of the band's experimental sound signified a major cultural shift in mainstream music where a band as decidedly out there as this could actually sell millions of albums. (It was a wondrous time, wasn't it?) Returning in 2009 after an 11-year break, the band has successfully maintained their status as the ultimate example of how to balance commercial success with what the fuck? eclecticism.

Naturally, the band's May 11 performance at Boston's Orpheum Theatre was esoteric from the moment the pre-show music (a gloriously odd assortment of tunes that included “Moon River”) died down and the crowd roared. Decked out in white, the band hit the flower-covered stage with “Motherfucker,” one of the many instantly unforgettable songs featured on the upcoming (and absolutely arresting) reunion disc, Sol Invictus. It got better and better from there: Drummer Mike Bordin and bassist Billy Gould locked in as only a decades-long partnership could, while frontman Mike Patton's vocal acrobatics and playful audience antagonism was an enthralling as expected.

Admirably, the group developed a set list that played to their greatest strengths: While “Epic,” “Surprise! You're Dead!” and their classic rendition of The Commodores' “Easy” were expected highlights, the band earned full marks for delivering deeper, less accessible cuts like the 30-year-old “Mark Bowen” and two songs (“Last Cup Of Sorrow,” an amazing “Ashes To Ashes”) from 1997's still-brilliant (and often-overlooked) Album Of The Year. And there's something truly beautiful in the sight of bald, bearded Metal bros cheering the group's cheeky cover of The Bee Gees' “I Started A Joke.”

Looking around the Orpheum, it was difficult to ignore the many wide smiles in the crowd - the result of not only nostalgia, but of genuine excitement to once again take in something they simply can't with any other band. It must be gratifying for Patton and Co. to come back after such a long time away and have an entire theatre sing a verse of “Personality Crisis.” While a good chunk of their '90s peers failed to survive the ensuing years, Faith No More's return has reminded us all of the immortal power of a truly extraordinary song.

Faith No More's late '80s/early '90s arrival in the major leagues was a high point in an era defined by an impressive array of acts (Voivod, Living Colour, Prong, Soundgarden, Primus, the criminally ignored Mordred) that pushed Metal into new territories. Twenty-six years (!!) after The Real Thing infiltrated suburbia and widened the genre's vocabulary, the band is still one step ahead of the rest of us – and trying to catch up to them is still a joyous listening experience.

Official Faith No More Website